Mountains of wine: Fieldwork in Carema and Donnas

Some of the most fascinating Italian wines (Carema DOC and Donnas DOC) are made at the base of the Alps. Despite a reputation for producing renowned Nebbiolo wines for the past several centuries,  the current culture and economy of wine production in the area face some extreme challenges.

I am in Italy this summer studying grape growing and wine production in the lower Aosta Valley and Carema area of Piedmont. These wine regions have unique challenges such as steep terrain, high production costs and small vineyard parcels. Major changes in the local economy have also played a role in changing viticultural traditions. In the nineteenth century, the economy of this area was mainly based on agricultural–grapes were the most important crop. At the end of that century, heavy industry and manufacturing drew farm labor away from the land. By the middle of the twentieth century the local steel industry was in crisis. Finally at the turn of the last century manufacturing, largely represented by Olivetti, also collapsed. In the past twenty years, there has been a lot of out-migration from this area, and now there are few young people who want to learn about tending vines and making wine. The future of wine in these two towns seems uncertain.

Although Donnas and Carema share many of the same challenges, their traditions and outlook on the future are surprisingly different. My work aims to look at the impact of economic and political changes on local viticultural traditions and the resilience of living cultural heritage in these two towns.

Reign of Terroir in the Humanities

I will be taking part in a conversation on the concept of terroir in the humanities at Brown University’s Cogut Center for the Humanities. I am looking forward to discussing the idea of terroir with Edward Korry from Johnston & Wales. Please come and join us:

April 5, 2012, 5:30pm
Brown University, Cogut Center for the Humanities
Pembroke Hall 305
172 Meeting Street
Provicence, RI

Anthropology of Wine at the AAAs

Anthropology of Wine: Ethnography from the Vineyard to the Glass
Sunday, November 20, 2011: 12:15-14:00
American Anthropological Association Meeting, Montréal, Canada
Organizers:  Rachel E Black (Boston University)
Chairs:  Rachel E Black (Boston University)
Discussants:  Robert C Ulin (Rochester Institute of Technology)
Wine Production and the Challenges of Labor Management In California: a Comparison of Two Wineries On the Central Coast

Shelley LaMon (University of California, Santa Barbara) and Juan-Vicente Palerm (University of California, Santa Barbara)
Terroir As Imagined Space: Bordeaux and the Yadkin Valley

Sarah Daynes (University of North Carolina Greensboro)

Robert C Ulin (Rochester Institute of Technology)

Taste Memory: Coherence, tradition & the politics of memory in wine

I will be giving a talk on wine & memory at Boston University’s Anthropology Department next week. This will be a dry run of the paper I am presenting in November at the American Anthropological Association meeting in Montreal.

Graduate Lunch Series Talk

Friday, November 4,    12:00

Anthropology Seminar Room, 232 Bay State Road, Boston, MA

Wine offers a unique opportunity to explore the concept of taste memory. Based on ethnographic research conducted in Piedmont, Italy, this paper will present two taste memory projects that articulate some of the theoretical questions underlying taste and time. The first example is the Banca del Vino in Pollenzo, Italy. The driving motivation behind this special cellar is twofold: first, wines are aged longer than the usual release time so that consumers can enjoy them once they near what is deemed their maximum potential. Second, there is an extensive collection of old wines in this bank that is intended to help preserve taste memory. These wines will help young winemakers and those in the wine trade understand the taste of wine over the longue durée. One complication in this project is that wine is organic and continues to evolve over time. Like human memory, wine’s sensory elements fade as it ages. The second ethnographic example is the “infernöt” that holds the wine memories of small wine producers, which often consist of bottles dating back to the beginning of the family’s production history. These collections are important for reminding the current winemaker of the main sensory themes of the wines and they help in giving the wines a consistent style. This paper will explore the ways in which wine banks and private family collections can be used as historical ‘documents’ that require a unique cultural interpretation involving the senses.

A light lunch will be served.  RSVP to

“Vino Naturale: Tensions between nature and technology in the glass”

The average wine drinker likely considers fermentation and wine making to be a mysterious process largely governed by the forces of nature: however, contemporary viticulture (the growing of grapes) and oenology (the science of wine making) are technology intensive from grape harvesting machinery to industrial yeast and fermentation tanks with cooling systems. Although much of the technology used in winemaking and the growing of grapes has improved the quality of most commercially produced wines, it is generally obscured from the consumer. The romantic vision of nature in the glass has prevailed.

Recently, the practices of industrial wine producers have come under attack from environmental groups and consumers who are concerned about the sustainability of grape growing and the healthfulness of industrial wine. Three of the off shoots of these consumer concerns are the increase in the production of organic grapes, the expansion of biodynamic agricultural practices and the fledgling natural wine movement. In much of this discourse, the natural wine movement pits technology against nature. This polarization has created a heightened discussion of wine’s “naturalness” and it has created a problematic questioning of the place of technology in wine production.

This paper will focus on discourses of nature and technology that are embedded in wine writers’ and drinkers’ language when talking about wine. Textual discourse analysis and ethnographic interviews serves as the basis of this research that looks at Italian wine and its American consumers. The growing dichotomy between nature and technology in the glass is at the center of this exploration.

I will be presenting this working paper on March 8, 4:30-5:30pm, Room 109, 808 Commonwealth Ave.,  as part of the new Gastronomy Program working papers sessions here at Boston University. Feel free to stop in and give me your opinions and thoughts on my research. Later in March, I will be presenting this paper at a Food Studies conference at the Rochester Institute of Technology.